Pre-Columbian Artifact II

Monkeys are prevalent images in Mesoamerican art.  Many examples are represented in a realistic style.  The lesser-known Mezcala/Balsas culture of south-west Mexico created primate figures in a very different – rather abstract – style.  Unfortunately, because few archaeological excavations have been undertaken in the area, little is known of this culture and its unique sculptures.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has a small, stone/serpentine monkey figure – approximately 3 inches high – from the Balsas River region of Guerrero State, which dates from between the 1st and the 8th c. CE ( Accession no. 1979.206.1208).  Seated, with long tail upraised and bent over, the primate seems a fine example of Mezcala sculpture.  The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) also has a small stone monkey attributed to Mezcala, dated to c. 500 BCE – 1000 CE.   The Mezcala style ( possibly developed c. 700 BCE) may have been strongly influenced by the enigmatic (well-documented) Olmec civilization that flourished in the (modern) states of Veracruz and Tabasco (c. 1200 – 400 BCE), and also known for their representations of animal gods.  A collection of Mezcala art is found in the Regional Museum of Guerrero Mexico, as well as in a number of museums world-wide.


See also:!?q=Mezcala%20monkey

Mexico’s Indigenous Past, A. Lopez Austin and L. L. Lujan, University of Oklahoma Press, 2001.

Mexico, from the Olmecs to the Aztecs, M. D. Coe and R. Koontz, Thames & Hudson, 2002.


A Divine Primate – Pre-Columbian Artifact I

spider-monkey-02Monkeys – especially spider monkeys – were important to Mesoamerican cultures, and a popular subject for artists creating sculpture, pottery and textiles.  Museums worldwide have examples of these objects in their collections.  Forms range from the realistic to the stylized to the abstract.   Monkeys figured in mythology,  the Aztec calendar includes a monkey, and today, monkey impersonators are a part of religious festivals.  The animals have been respected for their intelligence, and to many, symbolize hope.

The Metropolitan Museum in New York recently added a unique figure to their collection – a seated, stone spider monkey, grasping its tail, and dressed to represent the Aztec Wind God.  The expressive image wears wristlets, anklets, and an intricate neckpiece and earrings.  Dating from c. 1250 – 1521 CE, the sculpture is approximately 16 inches high, and is on display in gallery 358.  The Museo Nacional de Anthropologia, Mexico City, has a stone sculpture of a dancing spider monkey wearing the Aztec Wind God mask.  Found at a Mexico City metro station excavation, the figure is about 24 inches high.

Spider monkeys (family Atelidae) live mainly in the upper canopy of the tropical forests of Central and South America.  Their diet consists of fruits, leaves, flowers and insects.  All seven species are under threat – the black-headed and the brown spider monkeys are critically endangered, as shown on the Red List.



Ancient Art of Latin America from the Collection of Jay C. Leff, E. K. Easby, New York: Brooklyn Museum, 1966.

Mythology of the Aztecs and Maya, D. M. Jones, London: Southwater/Anness, 2003/2007.

Mythological Baboons

At Luxor (ancient Thebes) four sacred stone baboons stand in a row on the pedestal of the remaining obelisk at the mortuary temple of Ramesses II (reigned 1292 – 1225 BCE) – it’s twin stands in the Place de la Concorde, in Paris.  The hefty, imposing figures represent the male hamadryas baboon – so sacred to the ancient Egyptians that many were ritually mummified after death.  A frieze of carved baboons guards the entrance to one of the massive, rock-cut temples at Abu Simbel, southern Egypt – located above the heads of the colossal statues of Ramesses II.  The latter was a major site for sun worship.  Mythologically, the ancient Egyptians translated the baboons’ early morning ritual of grooming – with front feet raised – into a ritual of sun worship.

The hamadryas baboon (Papio hamadryas) ranges from northeast Africa – mainly Ethiopia – to eastern Sudan, northern Somalia, the Arabian Peninsula, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.  The species, however, extinct in Egypt.  Found – usually close to water – in hilly areas, mountains, meadows, and in arid subdesert, the baboons are mainly terrestrial, but often sleep in trees and on cliffs.  A varied diet includes grass, fruit, seeds, insects and small mammals.  The male baboon is distinctive, with furry silver-grey to white mantle and pink face.  Hamadryas baboons have a highly structured social system, the basis of which has been considered patriarchal, each male having a small group of females and their young.  This primate is classified as of Least Concern (LC) on the Red List and on Cites Appendix II.


See also:   In Quest of the Sacred Baboon: A Scientist’s Journey, H. Kummer and M. Biederman-Thorson, 1995.

Illustrated Guide to Luxor Tombs, Temples and Museums, Kent R. Weeks, 2005.

Abu Simbel Aswan and the Nubian Temples, Marco Zecchi, 2004.

Portrait of Golden Snub-nosed Monkeys Claims NHM “Wildlife Photographer of the Year” Award

“The Golden Couple”, a photo-portrait of snub-nosed monkeys by Dutch wildlife photographer Marsel van Oosten, has won the top award in the 54th annual wildlife photographic contest at the Natural History Museum in London.  Wildlife photographers from 95 countries competed for the prize.  “The Golden Couple” was chosen by judges  especially for its subtle artistic imagery, stunning colour and soft lighting, reminding the viewer that nature is precious.

The endangered (Red Listed) golden snub-nosed monkey is found in it’s only habitat – the small area of temperate forest in south-west China.  Diurnal, the species lives in groups of about 20 to 30 individuals in winter and as many as 200 in summer – groups often combine, numbering 500 to 600 individuals that can more easily ward off predators.  Diet includes pine needles, flower buds, tender bamboo shoots and fruits.  Dense fur protects against subzero winters.  A flat muzzle may also aid in combating extremely cold temperatures.  It is estimated that between 8,000 and 15,000 of these primates are left in the wild.

The exhibition at the Natural History Museum will run to 30 June, 2019, and then travel to the U. S.



Guide to the Wildlife of Southwest China, W. McShea and Sheng Li, 2018.


In Memory of Koko

Gorillas in Films and Reality

Primates have featured in films for decades – the gorilla a leading “actor”.  Sadly, because of a lack of understanding on the part of writers and producers, the gorilla was most often portrayed as a monstrous killer.  As early as 1908, the Conan Doyle silent film, “The Great Murder Mystery” featured a killer gorilla.  Through the 1920’s and 1930’s numerous films continued to characterise gorillas as fearsome predators, including:  “The Gorilla” (silent film, 1927), “Stark Mad” (1929), “The Gorilla” (1930), the original “King Kong” (1933 – inspired a number of remakes, the most recent, 2005), “House of Mystery” (1934), the popular Clyde Beatty offering, “The Lost Jungle” (1934), in which a gorilla guards a lost city and its treasure, and “The Gorilla” (1939).  Thankfully, primatologist/naturalist Dian Fossey (1932-1985) – studying endangered gorillas in the mountain forests of Rwanda (1960’s to 1980’s) – identified true characteristics of gorillas.  Gorillas, while all individuals, are mainly shy and rarely aggressive, vegetarian members of family groups.  In Gorillas in the Mist, Fossey relates – on first contact with gorillas – it was the shyness of behavior that most impressed her.  David Attenborough helped to reinforce this fact in a segment of “Life on Earth” (1979), when he was filmed with playful baby mountain gorillas in Rwanda.  And Koko, the female west lowland gorilla raised by American animal psychologist Francine Patterson, from 1971 to Koko’s sad death recently at age 46, was another proof of gentle behavior.  From 1984 to 2015, Koko adopted and helped care for five kittens.  And Koko’s calmness and intelligence were basic to her ability to learn/use “Gorilla Sign Language” (GSL).

Today, endangered gorillas face numerous threats – habitat loss, poaching, political instability, rabies, and human viruses/health threats.  However, groups such as Gorilla Doctors work tirelessly to save the lives of wild mountain and eastern lowland gorillas.  Gorilla Doctors international team of veterinarians provides hands-on care to sick and injured gorillas in the wild.  And events such as the “Great Gorilla Run” in London (16th annual run, 2018) help to raise funds.


See also:

BBC Earth – “The Great Gorilla Wipeout”, by Nick Funnel

Gorillas in the Mist, Dian Fossey, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 2000

Mountain Gorillas, G. Eckhart  and A. Lanjouw, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2008


Ancient Monkey Import

A rare example of a primate trade item – a find from the ancient city of Susa, modern Iran, probably imported from Central Asia or the Indus Valley – can be seen in the Louvre, Paris.  The small, red limestone monkey statuette – possibly a representation of an Asian macaque – is shown seated, and dates from the 3rd millennium BCE.  Ancient Near Eastern  (cylinder and other) seals also depict monkeys squatting or seated on stools.


See:   (official site) – see page 20, Near Eastern Antiquities, or

see the work in the Louvre, Richelieu Wing, Room 231.

Zoopharmacognosy – red-fronted lemurs self-medicating with millipede secretions

I have been meaning to post a link to a new study of zoopharmacognosy in red-fronted lemurs (Eulemur rufifrons), but have been away from the website for a wee while due to some health issues. Apologies for the lack of posts from me over the past months. The research was conducted by Louise R. Peckre, Charlotte Defolie, Peter M. Kappeler and Claudia Fichtel and published online in Primates Journal, 30 July 2018: 

Potential self-medication using millipede secretions in red-fronted lemurs: combining anointment and ingestion for a joint action against gastrointestinal parasites?


Self-anointing, referring to the behaviour of rubbing a material object or foreign substance over different parts of the body, has been observed in several vertebrate species, including primates. Several functions, such as detoxifying a rich food source, social communication and protection against ectoparasites, have been proposed to explain this behaviour. Here, we report observations of six wild red-fronted lemurs (Eulemur rufifrons) of both sexes and different age classes anointing their perianal-genital areas and tails with chewed millipedes. Several individuals also ingested millipedes after prolonged chewing. In light of the features of the observed interactions with millipedes, and the nature and potential metabolic pathways of the released chemicals, we suggest a potential self-medicative function. Specifically, we propose that anointing combined with the ingestion of millipedes’ benzoquinone secretions by red-fronted lemurs may act in a complementary fashion against gastrointestinal parasite infections, and more specifically Oxyuridae nematodes, providing both prophylactic and therapeutic effects.


Peckre, L.R., Defolie, C., Kappeler, P.M. et al. Primates (2018).

Publisher Name: Springer JapanPrint ISSN: 0032-8332Online ISSN: 1610-7365


Spotlight on Orangutans

Susan Shimeld, wildlife artist/natural history illustrator based at Larmer Tree Studio in Wiltshire, UK, creates paintings and drawings that focus on animals, including primates, especially endangered species.  Shimeld has worked with Greenpeace, and as Wildlife Coordinator for Friends of the Earth, she wrote articles on animal welfare – she has protested the use of animals in entertainment.  Originally self-taught, Shimeld more recently graduated from a natural history illustration course of study at Bournemouth and Poole College of Art and Design, UK.  Orangutans have provided a major subject for the artist.  She was invited to exhibit work such as “Baby Orang” at the Orangutan Foundation, London, and has exhibited in other galleries in the UK.